Written and performed by Sacha Yanow, Silent Film was first seen at Danspace in New York City on December 6, 2013. Right from the start, this piece guided the audience on a brief tour of sexualized tropes in cinema, mixing well-known films with buried facts—all in just under twenty minutes. Yanow’s Silent Film is a fortified example of how much can be achieved onstage with a single body, a spotlight, and audio. Three core elements, so simple. And yet, such simplicity is bound to magnify any elements that don’t click, as there is no where to hide an unsorted thought. Not that I was looking for imperfections (there’s no need, they speak up for themselves!), or distracted by any. The piece was immediately engaging with its compelling witty script, and Yanow’s expressive movements.
Silent Film presents the language, physicality and pathos of early silent films to overtly reveal a process of deep social and self questioning. Far from indulgently biographic, Yanow shapes her body and psychic output as the instruments through which questions are explored: about relationships, family dynamics, roles and role models, socialized comfort zones and how to disrupt such habits that pass for what they might not be. The fog is as much a metaphor as it is a zone—the emotional territory to which marginal sects are socially relegated. Crossing the fog means personal and social excavation to Yanow, an act of claiming histories systematically denied in our shared past. It is also the manifestation of a will, the choice to move freely in and out of time with an awareness of obfuscations that pass for accepted truths. Silent Film questions all this, so elegantly.
We didn’t have time to meet and discuss Silent Film until after I returned from a string of art shows in the lingering overcasts of Miami in December. What follows is an edited interview with Sacha Yanow, completed in January, 2014.
Patricia: You walked onstage shielding your face with a cape draped over your arm, like something out of The Shadow. Once your arm lowered, it was distinctly the face of Dracula. Why was your main character, the Little Vamp, constructed that way?
Sacha: Silent Film is greatly influenced by classic mystery/ghost/detective stories like the Shadow and Sherlock Holmes. The protagonist is a purposefully shape shifty mix of a vampire/clown/penguin/silent film star. Black and white. I wasn’t thinking Dracula in particular, but certainly vampire. Vampire as a classic type of lesbian trope in cinema, and a predatory role I feel I have played in my own lesbian life. The Clown is another classic trope for queers in film—our sexuality is either a joke or a terror. It is also a role I played in my family and in life as a way to escape and have immunity from family dynamics, to escape from traditional gender roles.
Patricia: Throughout the piece, my sense of time and place was displaced. Was this disorientation a strategy for the shape shifting qualities of the vampire?
Sacha: I placed the protagonist, the Little Vamp, in the present time, and the Theater Organ and Ghost Club in the past: from the silent film era in the US (turn of the century through the early 1930s). The protagonist is in dialogue with her history (personal, family, broader cultural histories). The Little Vamp is recovering her queer/feminist histories. I draw from elements of silent film era Hollywood, including the influence of spiritualism, magic, Russian immigration, lesbian “sewing circles,” Stanislavski’s acting system, anti-fascism activities, and my own family history.
Patricia: Why did you develop a dialogue between the Little Vamp and the theater organ?
Sacha: Historically, the theater organ was what created all the sound, music and effects, for silent cinemas where there was not a full orchestra. So it made sense to me to make the organ the mouthpiece—the Theater Organ in the piece gives voice to the Ghost Club, a real thing at the turn of the century. It was a club that explored paranormal activities. And there were a lot of famous folks involved including Sir Arthur Canon Doyle―(I thought that was so interesting, since Sherlock Holmes was all about the power of deductive reasoning and logic). The Ghost Club in my piece references this historic Ghost Club, including some of its members, as well as: queer and feminist people in film and theater from that time period; and contemporary peers, spiritual seekers, queers, feminists, other living artists. My Club is kind of like my higher self. This is also the first time I haven’t spoken live at all in a piece, relying completely on my physicality.
Patricia: What influences sustained the development of Silent Film?
Sacha: I am using cinema as a point of departure, silent film as a metaphor for things unspoken, unseen, unheard in my personal history and family mythology, and broader queer history. What can be recovered from the “cutting room floor”. A kind of historical fantasy. This piece was also inspired by photographs of silent film stars―black and white monochromatic foggy images―especially some of the male actors who looked very androgynous by today’s gender norms. Heavy makeup, tights, etc. I watched many Chaplin films, Alla Nazimova’s Salome (all gay cast), Queen Christina with Greta Garbo, films directed by Dorothy Arzner (first out Hollywood lesbian director and inventor of the boom mic), Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon.
I also wanted to investigate acting. I grew up as a child actor, mostly in theater. It was a way for me to escape the loneliness and isolation I felt in my small town and my family. It brought joy to people around me. But ultimately, it didn’t “save” me from my isolation or my family from whatever melancholy I thought they needed saving from.
Patricia: The reference to the Garden of Alla in your piece, is that about Alla Nazimova?
Sacha: Yes. Looking at pictures of silent film stars, they seemed to look like me, and like my family. So many Russian Jews were involved in early Hollywood, and I became obsessed with following some of that history, reading about the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and immigration at the turn of the century. Alla Nazimova was one of these Russian Jews, who came over, stayed with Emma Goldman in NY, apparently had an affair with Goldman and then moved on to Hollywood. She had this huge house/compound with bungalows. Apparently, there were lots of parties with lots of gays, especially women. Famous Hollywood lesbians. Yet I didn’t know about the Garden of Alla as part of Hollywood/film/cultural histories. I didn’t know about any connection between anti-fascism/anarchist intellectuals and Hollywood starlets. I had to really forage around for this type of information.
Patricia: I certainly didn’t know about any of that! Silent Film also featured quite a switchy floor romp, in which the vampire repeatedly performs the gender of the female being kissed/devoured and the male kissing/devouring. What were you exploring with these forms?
Sacha: It is the famous Mrs. Robinson scene from the movie The Graduate, a classic “cougar” scene. For me this is a scene about the roles I took on in my sexuality when I came out, roles I am still unraveling in romantic relationships in terms of gender, power, performance. I feel multiple roles inside me, a struggle. It also references the lesbian vampire trope, and my romantic history with older women. I am working on healthy relationships, healthy sexuality and stepping out of these roles of vampire or clown in which I have felt safe and excited, but also silenced by.
Patricia: There was something about that switchy floor romp that made me think about how much do we become voyeurs of our own sexualities, living in a society saturated with sexual imagery.
Sacha: I was trying to pull the threads out of the roles (predator, victim, entertainer, etc) which I play in my life – when I perform them in the piece, it brings information about them to the surface, truths about them and how they make me feel. I was thinking about the word ‘complicit’, as in being complicit with these roles, and complicit with the “fog”. If the “fog” is my disconnection from myself, how am I complicit in that? The “fog” as protection.
In the fog, things that are known become unknown…
Patricia: How do you see the fog as a “guest” in your own work/lifepsyche, beyond Silent Film? Was it an experiment or an extension of ideas that weave in and out of your process?
Sacha: I made this piece in order to investigate “the fog”, the fog as an embodiment of all the layered ways I have been disconnected from my self. The trajectory of the piece—the Vamp trying to figure the fog out, trying to fight it, asking for help and council, coming out of isolation and investigating the roles she is hiding in, developing a relationship with true herself, and finding community/history/family—all of this mirrors my own life experience.
The Ghost Club explains that the “fog” is something one cannot pin-point or logic out—the more one tries to figure it out, the more illusive it becomes. They share some realities they have discovered thus far, about the fog. Realities about myself I am disconnected from. Things I can’t see. But they are present on me and my body/mind/spirit. Such as race: I have certain privileges that accrue to me as a white person, and my cultural references are not universal. Such as sad family “ghosts”: I act as a body of evidence for them, proof that they exist and are admired and loved. Such as “a celluloid closet”: my sexuality is made into either a joke or a terror (clown or vampire).
Little Vamp’s relationship with the Ghost Club has just begun. She needs to regularly visit the Ghost Club to know and release the fog. There is not a magic pill to release it. She needs an ongoing relationship with herself, and with others.
Patricia: From your script, I loved this phrase: “the disappearing appearing act.”
Sacha: I use that phrase to explain what this whole piece or “soiree fantastique” is. Soiree Fantastique is a reference to early cinema coming out of magic shows and vaudeville/theater. Early film came from illusionists experimenting, trick photography, and special effects. George Méliès was called a cinemagician. Spiritualism was also very big at the time—and there was much debate as to whether séances were actually magic tricks. Early cinema often used séances as part of narrative content. I kept reading about how commonplace séances were – especially among Hollywood lesbians in the silent film era. The “disappearing appearing act” has multiple meanings: The fog obscures me from my authentic self, I disappear. The séance/magic show makes the fog appear to eventually make it disappear. Lack of information on queer histories is a disappearing act. My seeking it out and connecting to it is an appearing act. Etc.
I took Meisner acting training in my late 20s after having left acting for a while because of childhood baggage and coming out – the basis of Meisner’s method is Stanislavski’s acting system which came to the US/Hollywood around the turn of the century, after the Bolshevik revolution. Stanislavski taught psychological realism. The training helped me restore a more full repertoire of my own authentic feelings. Acting brought me truth and authenticity – even though that seems counter intuitive. I didn’t “learn” the feelings, I just discovered and allowed what was already there.
Patricia: Silent Film has many revolving roles, roles that invoke the lover and the beloved. Carson McCullers has written about a simmering melancholy within the lover as a role. The overt presence of desire in Silent Film reminded me of this quote: McCullers writes that “…the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover…Almost everyone wants to be the lover…in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover…For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved…”
Sacha: I really relate to the discomfort of receiving the love of the lover. Being stripped bare. In a way this piece is about being isolated and the process of coming to find connection in history and community—loving and being loved.
And it is complicated and I don’t understand it. I am investigating not only the melancholy that I feel/felt in the roles of the clown and the vampire―but also the melancholy that seemed to be around me growing up that somehow those roles saved me from.
Patricia: Did your physical performance reference Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc? Specifically, Joan’s Passion as it moves through her mind and pools up as emotion in the eyes, the face, the throat.
Sacha: Yes, it is referencing the Dreyer film, the incredible performance of Renée Jeanne Falconetti, the lead in that film, but also the character of Joan of Arc in general. As a classic feminist icon. In my research I discovered that there were several Hollywood lesbians who tried their hand at Joan of Arc scripts.
There are three vignettes in Silent Film attempting to illustrate parts of the “fog” and Joan of Arc is the first. For me it references the Martyr role, taking on the emotions of others, “saving” people. Peter Pan is the second, the boy who never grew up: another role that many a boyish lady actor played (and it started with Maude Adams at the turn of the century). So few roles for us. It references my own gender exploration, my disconnection from my female adult identity, the search for genderqueer reality. The final was from The Graduate, referencing a later time period as I began to come into sexual experiences.
Patricia: You flawlessly conveyed Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s pathos and physicality. Little Vamp exited the stage exactly from the same point of entry, but quite differently: capeless, with confidence and showing face. The silent movement walked away with renewed determination.
Sacha: I wanted to express that something has changed for Little Vamp from this experience with the Ghost Club. From connecting with herself and others. She is still black and white. Still has Vamp/Clown face and is still hesitant. But she is less afraid and sad, and like you said, showing face. More connected.
Patricia: How did you get started making work? Or is what you’re doing now an extension of being trained as an actor?
Sacha: This is my second solo performance piece. I never thought of myself as someone who would make things, but surrounded myself with makers of some kind. Acting was always a process of creating, but it’s different than writing/making work. It certainly informs the content of what I make though. I probably was always a maker, maybe I was just disconnected from it. Part of the fog…I don’t know you ever feel like this with your own work, but even though I’m talking about sexuality and gender, when I’m making work I’m not thinking about it as I’m making it…
Patricia: That makes good sense to me. To think about it would just paralyze me. When we make work from our own experiences, the work becomes and reflects who we are and what we work through. How ideas develop and how experience is converted into “making.” Converting the lived into an active verb: that is one of the aspects of making that I love.
Sacha: Yes. For me, making is about excavation. Mining myself. It is a way of knowing myself and others.
Black and white portrait of Sacha Yanow by Jibz Cameron, 2013.